Dealing with challenging customers is the reality of running a business where one provides a service or builds a dream for someone. Maybe it’s difficult for the homeowner to envision the design or materials in reality. Maybe the client changes his or her mind in the middle of a dig. Maybe an installation isn’t how they want it. But whatever customers choose to dish out, these five companies managed to top the rankings for customer service among their participating Top 50 peers. Pool & Spa News again partnered with Atlanta-based GuildQuality to administer customer-service surveys for every Top 50 company that chose to participate. Former customers were asked to evaluate their builder’s performance during each stage of the design and construction process.

Here, the five highest-scoring companies share examples of how they took a challenging customer situation and found positive resolution.

1. Regal Pools
Last year, Spring, Texas-based Regal Pools was installing a more than $150,000 project for a customer who had specific expectations of the process and finished look of his backyard that were tough to manage. The build included a roughly 20-foot negative edge on one side of the contemporary-style pool with two flanking columns, glass tile, blue granite pebble interior, bluestone deck/patio, an outdoor kitchen and landscaping.

Getting the project done to the satisfaction of the customer, who is an engineer, was a priority to co-owners Joshua Buzzell and Edwin Escobar. From the beginning to gunite to finishing touches, appeasing the homeowner’s demands took extra effort.

The major sticking point was the decking/patio installation. The customer felt it should have been done with power tools and not hand tools and wasn’t satisfied with the cuts made in the stone.

“We actually removed the deck a time and a half to bring in new material to make sure he was happy,” Buzzell says. “I went into the city of Houston to find a mason … and I had him come and install 80 percent of that deck.”

The changes and re-installation cost $10,000, which Regal Pools absorbed to satisfy the customer. It isn’t a typical action for the business.

“It was worth it because of where he lives and the customer base and referrals,” Buzzell says. He credits Escobar’s management in the field for running the jobs smoothly with rare complaints or concerns.

“This business is really about customer relationships. If you have a customer who trusts you, it’s going to be so easy. If you don’t have a customer who trusts you, or just has a problem at work or something like that, we read into it early and set expectations. And whatever they need, we address.”

2. Backyard Amenities
Managing customer expectations from the beginning of the process through the end and letting customers know what to expect has kept Backyard Amenities in Baytown, Texas, from having many situations of unhappy customers.

Over the 17-year history of the business, Patty Stephens, who owns the company with her husband, Brad, remembers only a couple of times when they’ve had customers who picked out tile and stone for the pool and then didn’t like the look of it when it was installed.

“You try to work it out, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t,” Stephens says.

Another complaint they hear from their customers is a common one on any construction job — the mess at the site during the process.

“We send out the reviews, and they’ll put on there, ‘One of our big disappointments was the yard was a mess during the construction process,’” Stephens says. “I think there are people that you’ll never make completely happy in life.”

To help customers prepare and understand the process, Backyard Amenities gives each one a customer construction manual, which includes each step of the job, at the time the contract is signed.

“I think the biggest and most important thing in good customer service is communication and education,” Stephens says. “I think you have to make sure you’re upfront and honest with the customers.”

To help customers moving forward into pool ownership, the company provides a binder with all the owner’s manuals for the equipment and general information about maintenance and enjoying the pool. Each binder is customized to the client and then presented when a Backyard Amenities staff member walks the homeowners through a pool orientation.

3. Caviness Landscape Design
An iron bridge caused a recent uncomfortable situation that needed remedying during a build for Caviness Landscape Design in Edmond, Okla.

The feature was one of many on a recently completed project that cost upwards of $2.5 million, and included a 230,000-gallon pool, an 85-foot wide waterfall over a 2,500 square foot grotto with a swim-up bar, bathroom and outdoor appliances, a 140-foot long lazy river and a built-in spa.

The company hired a contractor to build a bridge for $6,000, and during its installation, the homeowner called owner Kelly Caviness to let him know that he didn’t like it. “We ripped the bridge out, and we constructed it out of concrete and steel and faux rock and stamped it to make it look like the rest of the entire grotto/waterfall feature,” Caviness says. “That was it, and he was totally cool with it.”

Having the customer satisfied with the bridge was imperative because of its focus in the project. It spans the lazy river and is one element in a pathway that links the 30-person spa to the house itself.

“This pathway goes all the way up to the master side of the bedroom,” Caviness says. “It’s critical. But aesthetically it was imperative to have it look cool.”

Many times trees are put in the ground per the plan, and the customers aren’t happy with the placement, and Caviness removes the trees and moves them. Absorbing the cost of these fixes multiplies itself exponentially for the business.

“You’re only as good as your last job,” Caviness says. “One bad referral will kill 20 good jobs. … You have to go well beyond what you wanted to do to guard what your reputation is. And, unfortunately, sometimes it hurts; it’s costly.”

4. Hilltop Pools & Spas
For one unhappy customer of Hilltop Pools & Spas in Jonesboro, Ga., last year, the “fix” wasn’t within the company’s reach. The $150,000 project consisted of a pool, fireplace, gazebo and outdoor kitchen. Before ground even broke, the customer had issues with the county during the permitting process because he needed to have additional survey work done, which isn’t uncommon as the process becomes more complex in the area, says Brian Miller.

“The first thing is recognizing the emotion of the client,” he says. After construction started, the same customer had problems with a difficult inspector in the area who’s known to fail projects.

“We decided to provide some glass bead in his interior of his pool at no charge,” Miller says. “Our recognizing the concern by providing that turned this person into one of our most vocal advocates with GuildQuality and all the review sites.”

The comped materials cost the company only about $500, but its impact in word-of-mouth value and referrals can’t be measured.

Hilltop Pools’ approach to customer service in general is set up to have a positive effect on all customers.

“No. 1, we’re going to recognize the emotion,” Miller says. “We’re not going to debate who’s responsible, what should have, could have, would have. … If they’re unhappy, then that’s what we deal with.”

Even small concerns, such as a chip in the pool deck or other minor blight, don’t go unnoticed.

“We’re going to resolve the issue, and then we’re going to compensate them in some capacity,” he says. “Generally that can be flowers, a gift certificate to a dinner or pool chemicals.”

5. Georgia Classic Pool
Like with any business, builders sometimes struggle to have a personality connection with a customer. That was the case on a job Georgia Classic Pool in Canton, Ga., completed this year. The $150,000 project features a pool, a built-in spa set inside a waterfall grotto, and a slide for the family’s children, all surrounded by a paver pool deck. “We had made some mistakes with some design ideas, and [the client] had struggled with some of that,” says Vance Dover, owner. Because of that, the homeowner’s vision wasn’t possible.

Exacerbating the problem was the delay caused by the amount of rain this year.

In response, Georgia Classic Pool staff met internally to discuss the issue and decided to go above and beyond in every way to exceed the customer’s expectations and give the family upgrades to the project at no cost.

That included doubling the size of the waterfall spilling over the natural-boulder grotto, as well as upgrading the paver deck and some landscaping.

“The project ended up looking a lot better than the original design,” Dover says.

For another customer, the company completely replaced the concrete decking on a $100,000 project that was completed several years ago and included a pool, built-in spa and outdoor kitchen. “It was way out of warranty,” Dover said. “And, for whatever reason, they had a tremendous amount of cracks in the concrete.”

The company doesn’t have a warranty for cracks in concrete because the material does tend to crack over time, but the sheer amount of fractures in the deck, the look of it and the knowledge that it was taking away from the family’s enjoyment of the pool caused Dover to act.

“Even though we legally had no obligation, … we felt we had a moral obligation to correct it,” Dover says. “It cost us thousands of dollars. We went in and we removed all of the concrete. We installed pavers for them; we upgraded the deck.”